Francis Spufford’s tender work of resurrection

Simon Smart reviews Francis Spufford's latest novel Light Perpetual for ABC Religion & Ethics.

For thirteen years, on his way to teaching students in the Creative Writing program at Goldsmiths, University of London, British writer Francis Spufford walked past an inauspicious plaque on the wall of a local supermarket. And it got under his skin. The plaque commemorates the place where, in November 1944, a German V2 missile obliterated a Woolworths store killing 168 people. Fifteen of that number were children under eleven years of age.

Spufford became haunted by the lives those children didn’t get to live. His latest novel, Light Perpetual, was born out of his ruminations on that split second of indiscriminate cruelty that vaporised those lives and abruptly brought to an end whatever trajectory they were on. “Their part in time is done”, he writes.

“They have no share, any more, in what swells and breathes and tightens and turns and withers and brightens and darkens; in any of the changes of things … That’s time for you. It breaks things up. It scatters them. It cannot be run backwards, to summon the dust to rise, any more than you can stir milk back out of tea. Once sundered, forever sundered. Once scattered, forever scattered. It’s irreversible.”

Time may have ended for these children, but in the novel Spufford re-imagines lives, creates names, and gives existence back to five children — Jo and Valerie and Alec and Ben and Vernon. He defiantly summons them out of the ruins of that 1944 South London calamity and breathes life into them. The result is a captivating contemplation of five lives, paths chosen or not taken, the joys and wounds that time gifts and inflicts:

“Come, other future. Come, mercy not manifest in time; come knowledge not obtainable in time. Come, other chances. Come, unsounded deep. Come, undivided light.

Come dust.”

There is a wistful melancholy to the stories that reflects the author’s stage of life. Approaching his fifty-seventh birthday, Spufford is in a contemplative mood. “I think there is something about being in your fifties which makes you able to see the span of a life more easily”, he tells me via Zoom from his home in Ely near Cambridge. “You can see that you’ve had the majority of it for one thing, but also you have memories that go back thirty or forty years and you’ve had the chance to see places change and people metamorphose in time, and you begin to see that there is a kind of unity to the span of a human life. An untidy unity, but still a unity.”

Light Perpetual is an ambitious project — a complex weaving of divergent time periods and characters who live unspectacular but always intriguing lives. Spufford handles it all with dexterity and absorbing authenticity. There is murder and mental illness, heartbreak and loss of various kinds, as well as a meditation on and honouring of the mundane, commonplace aspects of our lives that Spufford clearly sees as essential and, perhaps, sacred. Detailed descriptions of the craft of a plasterer or someone carefully attending to the task of washing a pile of dishes might not sound immediately enticing, but in the hands of someone of Spufford’s skill, these moments become mesmerising.

Spufford reminds us that each life, no matter how small, or how short, burns with glory and significance.

This is part of the brilliance of the novel, that especially in view of a life not lived, the smallest, most mundane moments are lit by a meaning we often overlook. And in exhibiting such careful attentiveness, Spufford reminds us that each life, no matter how small, or how short, burns with glory and significance.

Spufford is a writer of elaborate and intricate detail — a writer who somehow truly makes it possible to feel what it might be like to be a schizophrenic London bus conductor in the 1970s, or a type-setter at the end of the glory days of Fleet Street newspapers, or the wife of a murderous skinhead in 1980s, or an East End conman-cum-entrepreneur and property developer. He even manages to get inside the inventive and mysterious thought patterns of a songwriter.

Light Perpetual is an absorbing meditation on time, and on eternity. There is a deliberate and appropriate ambiguity about what is possible or likely. Is time all there is? Are we merely subject to its ravages and life’s caprice? Or, do the longings we all experience for “something more” represent an echo of a spiritual reality? Spufford’s stories in Light Perpetual are elegantly poised between belief and unbelief with much that is open to interpretation.

In her review of Light Perpetual in The Guardian, Kate Kellaway describes Spufford as a writer with “a Christian heart without ever being off-puttingly pious” — by which she probably meant not being predictably or even overtly religious.

God is never mentioned in Light Perpetual, but is instead a kind of persistent presence, even if only as a lingering question.

Spufford famously “outed” himself in 2012 with a defence of Christian belief in his book Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense. It was a lively and engaging departure from the usual theist versus atheist debates, focusing instead on the emotional appeal of the Christian story. Spufford’s ability to reinvigorate as tired and misused a term as “sin” — defining it as the “Human propensity to F@#$ things up” — was an example of his sensitivity to the categories in which contemporary audiences think.

God is never mentioned in Light Perpetual, but is instead a kind of persistent presence, even if only as a lingering question. Any potential answer to that question is fittingly inconclusive, but operates as an invitation to consider transcendent things. The relentlessly unappealing character Vern, doggedly self-centred and skilled in the art of deceit, has, ultimately, robbed himself of the opportunity to experience real love. The riches that come to him, and that inevitably slip through his hands, do not fill the void in his soul. His love of opera is as close as he gets to seeking beauty outside of his narrow world of acquisition and competition:

“He remains solid. He is clad in slab armour. So what can be wrong, he thinks angrily. What can be wrong when nothing is wrong? Check the inventory: everything is all right. He is rich. He has the world where he wants it. He has a Bentley parked outside. He can afford to buy himself any pleasure. He is surrounded by delicacies, none forbidden. Death is still far away (surely). Yet something makes him ache; something from the stage.”

What is the source of that deeply human and universal ache? Spufford’s answer to that mystery is revealing, and contrasts with Vern’s fruitless grasping for satisfaction: “So, what I believe myself is that when children get killed by a bomb, everything they lose is somehow made good by a loving God”, Spufford told me. He went on to say that:

“God’s capacity to remember what happened and who we’ve been, and also who we might have been and who we should have been if we’d have the chance, takes care of that. But, I don’t know how. I’m not looking at the world from a God’s eye view, but what I can do is offer a kind of image of that, that works in fictional terms, and that goes well as a kind of image of God’s unfailing embrace towards lost things … It’s a little fictional counterpart of what I think is really happening in the world.”

The five characters of Light Perpetual are birthed — or, perhaps more accurately, resurrected — by Spufford in an act of creative generosity. And yet they too must wend their way towards old age and inevitable death. Their eventual demise is not as jolting as that brought on by the malevolent wartime missile, but it remains an affront to life and a mournful capitulation to time and the toll it takes on us all. Unless, of course, you remain open to the possibility of a life beyond that constricted by what can be seen and measured and touched; unless you remain open to a life beyond the dust to which we all must go. While not demanding that openness of his readers, for Francis Spufford, such an idea remains a tantalising prospect.

Simon Smart is the Executive Director of the Centre for Public Christianity and the co-host of the historical documentary, For the Love of God: How the church is better and worse than you ever imagined.

This article first appeared at ABC Religion & Ethics.